The Good News About Honesty

Talk to anyone about the headlines in your local newspaper or the stories on the television news and you're unlikely to hear many upbeat comments. It would seem that the moral standards of the country were slipping right off the edge of the table. But my personal experience repeatedly brings me news to the contrary. Take honesty, for example: It's amazingly easy to find instances that really lift your spirits. Let me tell you about something that happened to me on a recent vacation.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were enjoying a ride up the coast of northern California. A windy, two-lane road gave us our first glimpse of redwood trees, and we finally hit the coast just south of Mondocino. The scenery was stunning, and the day was perfect: sea-stacks topped with little conifers, long waves in the blue-green water, and a thin mist moving in toward the long cliffs.

We took a quick look in the Sierra Club's guidebook to northern California which suggested that nearby Mackerricher State Park would be a good place for some close-up looks at tide pools, one of our favorite preoccupations. We already had a picnic lunch in hand so we scurried out to the beach.

After a quick bite, we followed the tide out onto the rocky headlands. Everything was glistening as the water pulled back, and we were delighted to crawl and hop around to take close-ups of all the wonderous sights. At one point I sat down on the rocks under a cliff to photograph bright-green dripping seaweed ... and that's where it happened: My wallet slipped out of my pocket and onto the beach.

Only the next morning did I realize that it was gone. My wife said it was on its way to China and made jokes about the fish using my credit cards. But somehow I sensed a different outcome.

I told her right away that I wouldn't be the least surprised to see it back, with all its contents. Still, to brace myself for what seemed like a certain loss, I mentally distributed the cost of the missing bills out over the activities of the last few weeks. You know how to do that, right? Just add a $10 surcharge to everything you've done recently. That way the loss doesn't seem to hurt quite so much.

But sure enough, when I got back to Pennsylvania, there was a message waiting for me at the office: The caller had my wallet in hand, complete with all the money it had contained. A park visitor had found it and given it to a seasonal naturalist, who had turned it in to the district office. Three good people had a role in returning my almost-lost wallet - with no ''commisions'' deducted!

I've often felt that folks who are deeply interested in the natural world are special. Somehow, their level of caring seems to set them apart.

The people out on that headland, including the naturalist, all have committed themselves to activities that, like virtue, are largely their own reward. Fascination with sea anemones isn't going to bring you much financial gain in the workaday world. If you really care about such things, you're likely to care about most everything - including returning a wallet that isn't yours.

But folks in every walk of life turn out to be surprisingly honest. One day, while I was on my way to work, I left my whole pack, including my wallet, on the bus. The driver turned it all in at the garage when the run was over, and I got it back a few days later. No naturalists involved there.

And another time, while I was heading for the Grand Canyon with a group of students, I left a very nice camera in a filling station in a tiny town in Arkansas. I called and asked the gas station owner to send it to me at a general delivery post office some days down the road.

He tried hard, but it kept missing me and being forwarded ahead, finally catching up with me in North Carolina some four months later!

So maybe we're all sort of ''proto-naturalists'' at heart. And having been the recipient of all these startlingly honest gestures, I feel a deep responsibility to keep the circle growing, to do the best I can to startle others with my honesty!

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